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ATPM 12.07
July 2006


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Book Review

by Wes Meltzer,

Google Maps Hacks


Publisher: O’Reilly

Authors: Rich Gibson, Schuyler Erle

Price: $30

Trial: Table of Contents, Index, Sample Hacks

The world is full of Google Maps mashups, and O’Reilly’s Rich Gibson and Schuyler Erle set out to catalogue them, in the hope that they would be useful to their readers. When I think of these code-powered map tools, I think first of and Seattle Bus Monster, and of HousingMaps most of all. They’re great tools, and well worth reading about.


Google Maps Hacks is just one volume in a series, ranging from Skype Hacks to Google Hacks to Nokia Smartphone Hacks, which outline a variety of interesting and innovative ways power users are using a particular tool.

I haven’t read any of the other Hacks series books, but if they’re anything like this one, they will not present themselves as especially useful. I say this as an extremely satisfied customer of O’Reilly’s now-legendary programming references, which is what put the publishing house on the map in the first place. But I’m not sure who these Hacks books are aimed at, and I am apparently not in this group. The subtitle on the book is dangerously misleading: “Tips & Tools for Geographic Searching and Remixing.”

Originally I approached Google Maps Hacks as a way to implement something I’ve been trying to do for a long time, which is to convert a database of hotel information into a map with clickable tabs. I’ve never been happy with any of the existing solutions, either the code examples Google provides or, so I thought I would see what the pros had done, and maybe get some ideas about other neat ways to extend Google Maps.

While I found all kinds of interesting things, none of them had anything to do with what I wanted to do. My project must not be sophisticated enough to qualify. Some of the hacks presented—which, I feel I should note, are almost all real-world mashups by ordinary people—were genuinely awesome: traffic and cell phone reception maps, crime and news and weather maps, that kind of thing. They made me wish I was the kind of innovative thinker who could produce useful computer software, because some of them will change the world with their ideas. The map software is just the platform.

I would like to celebrate, then, the many amazing accomplishments of people much smarter than me, many of whom wrote their own chapters in the books. These are remarkably novel ideas, and go from the mundane, like sharing GPS tracking data using Google Maps, to the exotic things I mentioned previously.

But try though I could, re-reading the book three times over the last month while I hammered away at my problem, I found nothing in the book that would help me make my map work. All I wanted to know how to do was to design a map with markers in specific locations, labeled with the names of hotels, and make it so that a click brought up a useful information pane. I think it’s fantastic that somebody figured out how to scrape Craigslist into Google Maps, but I’m not going to buy a book to find out about that. I’m glad I didn’t purchase this book at the bookstore, because I would have been sad to return it, but it has a title which misleads you into believing that it will help you use Google Maps in your own site. It’s certainly theoretically possible that this book could, but it did not help me.

The funny thing about the format of this book and the Hacks series, then, is that they seem designed more as an artist’s showcase, provoking conversations about other possibilities, than as a collection of “Tips & Tools.” The code’s all present, of course, and it’s possible that a more crafty JavaScript hacker might have been able to stitch several of these together into a seamless interface. But one of the big points of the O’Reilly books has always been that they are very nearly as usable by the novice as by the expert. This book did not seem to be.

I’m not really sure what to make of the experience. The “Tips” part of the book appears to be the hacks themselves, with introductions by the various programmers explaining how and why they did things in a particular way. The “Tools” part is presumably the first two and last two chapters, explaining some neat little tricks that you can get away with in making your own maps. While these tricks are indeed neat, they’re very little, and the great bulk of the book is rather less useful.

Now my problem remains, and I have no new ideas about Google Maps mashups to share. Perhaps I’m wrong about Google Maps Hacks, and a thousand and one new mashups are forthcoming (just not from me). If that’s the case, I will admit defeat and move along, and publicly apologize to O’Reilly for the poor review of this book.

But if it’s anything like the “thought-provoking” conceptual art in certain galleries in the Art Institute of Chicago, I’m not holding my breath. Sorry, guys.

Reader Comments (3)

michael mckee · July 2, 2006 - 01:31 EST #1
So what you are saying is that because this book did not give you the answer to your specific question, it's a bad book? That's the way it comes across.

Your are not offering a review but an extended pout. Get over it.

The Hacks series does not pretend to offer thorough manuals. Look for a "Definitive Guide" or "Bible", even a "Missing Manual". The series gives specific hacks for specific programs or platforms. As one would expect of such a series, some of the hacks are useful or thought provoking. Some will be ho-hum. Of course what's ho-hum for you might be exciting to me.

Whether such a book is worth $30 is a legitimate question. I bought Google Map Hacks and quite enjoyed it, but it did answer my particular question. I probably won't buy many others in the series. $30 to answer a question that might have taken me hours or days of searching otherwise is a good investment to me. But I have a secret weapon, O'Reilly's Safari subscription program. I know what I'm buying before I buy it.

But that's all a sidebar. The book is what it is and has a lot of useful information. I wouldn't give it five stars but I wouldn't pan it because it didn't answer my own question.
Lee Bennett (ATPM Staff) · July 2, 2006 - 08:41 EST #2
Michael - strictly my opinion (I haven't read the book) but Wes did talk about what was in the book, and pointed out that it doesn't follow the format most people have come to recognize in O'Reilly's series. Unless I'm mistaken, that sounds more like an informed bit of research that requires someone to be familiar was O'Reilly's books than an "extended pout."
jose jose15 · January 29, 2007 - 14:35 EST #3
This is kind of cool. I'm doing a project for my FFA record book and the google maps on the google-maps page didn't have what I needed. I wanted to create borders and outlines to show my School District boundary. I would like some help, If you have any for me such as a website or tips or something. I would very much appreciate it and that would be a lot of help. My e-mail address is or Thanks a lot. please e-mail me if you have any help for me. thanks again

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